Essays: What a gentleman! |
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What a gentleman!

A FEW hours after last week’s column was irrevocably set up in type, John McEnroe shambled out on to the Centre Court at Wimbledon (BBC1 and 2) and redeemed his previous horrible behaviour by losing gallantly to Borg in the most thrilling tennis match since Dan Maskell played King Henry VIII. Your reporter was left with a lot of egg on his face.

Letters have been pouring in ever since, asking how I could be so unkind to the saintly McEnroe. I must say it’s very British of you all. There he is, a potato-faced punk with a hair helmet, effing and blinding right and left while his opponents strive to concentrate. Then in his final match he somehow manages to behave well.

A sceptic might say that on this occasion it was scarcely in his interests to behave badly, considering the inadvisability of squandering one’s energy when playing Borg, who gains in strength the longer the match goes on. But the sceptical voice is silenced under a torrent of loving adulation. McEnroe! What a gentleman when the chips are down! How brave, how compassionate, and, when you get right down to it, how cute and how adorable!

But let’s admit that the spiteful little tick has nerves of chromium and a miraculous touch. When Borg has match points against you it must be like facing up to Max von Sydow on the vengeance trail in ‘The Seventh Seal.’ Yet McEnroe kept on coming back. The tie break at the end of the fourth set was about as exciting as television can get without inducing convulsive seizures in its entire audience. So much for the theory that television denatures experience.

If experience were to be any more natured than that, you would have to spend the following week in a rest home. The match was marvellous, and the fact that we all witnessed it was more marvellous still. When Livy reported that a five-legged calf had fallen out of the sky and landed on the Aventine, the story was already third-hand before it reached him. But here was a prodigious event that millions of us saw, so it must have been true. Next week, the British Open. How sweet they are, those few weeks of the year when football is absent from the screen, and we can see sport instead.

The BBC had a galloping case of Dallasitis throughout the week. Nor were there any signs that the attack would peter out in the weeks to come. Dallasitis is a disease which afflicts British public service broadcasting companies who have fluked a hit with an imported American soap opera. The soap opera having become a cult, they spoil the fun by over-exploitation. In terminal cases they repeat the whole series from the top, so that everybody can get heartily sick of what had previously been rather fun.

Nevertheless I was poised before the screen night after night, eagerly researching arcane aspects of Texan speech patterns. ‘I think we otter dance till Don’ means ‘I think we ought to dance till dawn.’ Missed that one the first time round. It was remarkable how early and how firmly the makers of the series grasped the principle that everything depended on the girls.

All the prattle about JR is a side issue. What matters is for Pamela to get that sumptuous figure of hers into profile as often as possible, while Sue Ellen props herself unsteadily against the cocktail cabinet and Lucy, surprisingly agile for someone with no thorax, climbs a ladder into the hay-loft. Apart from the fact that Digger was played by David Wayne instead of Keenan Wynn, the whole format was born full-blown, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, or a big idea from the forehead of an executive.

Joseph Losey’s film of Brecht’s Galileo (BBC2) was a testimony to the exiled director’s long and loyal veneration of the poet’s memory. The film was made in 1974 and has not often been seen since. While being grateful for the chance to watch it, however, I’m bound to say it enshrined all the reasons why Brecht’s dramatic achievements have always reduced me to a state of paralysis. I once started writing an article about Brecht called ‘Homage to Catatonia,’ but fell asleep before I could finish it.

Brecht had this terrifying knack for being condescendingly knowing, coupled with a deadly ability to contrive theories that would elevate sheer crassness to the status of theatrical technique. Filming the Charles Laughton version of the script, Losey made sure that its lumpish dialogue was not sullied by such inappropriate elements as lightness or humour.

There was a production number of stunning clumsiness in which Georgia Brown was obliged to sing lines like ‘This is no matter small.’ It was boredom large — a specifically Brechtian kind of tedium that was meant to educate the masses, but which will probably leave them with not a lot to remember beyond a few lyrics that had the good fortune to meet up with the music of Kurt Weill.

But at least Brecht’s work has a mind behind it, even though it is a hard mind to admire. Stuff like Young Joe (BBC1) makes you suspect that laundromats have started to write scripts. Purporting to tell the story of Joe Kennedy, the first of the famous brothers to meet an untimely death, it fully lived down to the standard set by such pioneering efforts as ‘Ike.’

What chiefly characterises this genre is dialogue full of anachronistic idioms, so that all the money spent on period decor is automatically undone every time an actor opens his mouth. The inevitable result is that the props are more real than the people. Joe Kennedy died at the controls of a B-24 Liberator. As reproduced in the programme, this event left you utterly indifferent about Joe, but deeply sorry for the B-24 Liberator, which was the real McCoy and acted beautifully, mainly because it had not been given anything to say.

Love Among the Artists (Granada), despite a prevalence of lines that could be delivered successfully only by van, must by now be accounted an unequivocal success. Shaw’s novel about the difference between genuinely talented nobodies and well-connected would-be artists takes a long time to cover the same ground as Tolstoy did in a few pages of ‘Anna Karenina,’ but Shaw shared Tolstoy’s gift of making issues dramatic.

The adaptation goes some way towards turning the novel into the play Shaw might have made of it himself, and some good acting does the rest, although there is quite a lot of bad acting as well, for purposes of contrast. Jane Carr is perfect as the dedicated actress and the excellent John Stride brings Owen Jack boiling to life. A genius without charm, Jack was a feat of imagination for Shaw, who was a genius with charm. High society mobbed him all his life. He had to fight off amorous duchesses with a stout stick.

Rumours that Richard Kershaw might soon front Nationwide (BBC1) will hearten all those who regularly find themselves flabbergasted by the programme’s grinding triviality. The other night there was an interview with a small boy who had a scheme for rescuing the hostages in Iran. The plan mainly consisted of getting the goodies to put on masks and sneak-up on the baddies. While this young contributor was being exploited for his touching naïvety, the hostages were beginning their umpteenth night in captivity.

The Observer, 13th July 1980